A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Was Sigmund Freud a quack?

September 12, 2003

Dear Cecil:

I'm sort of surprised that you dismiss the work of Freud as mere quackery in your recent column about B.F. Skinner. No doubt Freud's theories and the therapeutic effectiveness of psychoanalysis remain open and controversial issues. But accusing the father of psychoanalysis and one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century of quackery is simply "Freud-bashing" and serves no purpose.

Cecil replies:

I never accused Freud of mere quackery. On the contrary, I think most fair-minded folk nowadays would agree that Freud elevated quackery to a whole new level. Phrenology, animal magnetism, and the like have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but you'll still find intelligent people praising Freud's pioneering contributions to our understanding of the human mind. To adapt General Bosquet's remark about the Charge of the Light Brigade: Freudian theory may be magnificent, but it ain't science.

Freud has always had his detractors, but the public didn't hear much about them until the Masson controversy of the early 1980s. Jeffrey Masson was a trained analyst and researcher who briefly served as projects director for the Freud archive. Making use of previously unavailable documents, he argued in the 1984 book The Assault on Truth that a fundamental tenet of psychoanalysis, the repression of infantile sexuality, was based on a lie. Freud initially believed that adult neurosis was a manifestation of sexual abuse in early childhood but later rejected this "seduction theory" as implausible. Instead he proposed his now-familiar ideas about oedipal fantasy, which located most early sexual escapades in the patient's imagination. Masson called that a cop-out, claiming Freud had been right the first time but lacked the guts to confront the reality (and ubiquity) of sexual abuse. Either by coincidence or as an outgrowth of this notion, the years following publication of Masson's book saw a vogue for "recovered memory therapy," in which practitioners elicited horrifying tales of incest, rape, and satanic ritual abuse from their patients — all of which were supposedly bona fide recollections.

In 1993 Frederick Crews, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, entered the fray. In a series of scathing articles he argued, in effect, that Freud and Masson were both full of it. Freud's patients, Crews said, seldom reported sexual abuse spontaneously. Instead the therapist — whom Crews characterized as megalomaniacal — used a combination of suggestion and browbeating to plant ideas in their heads that would fit his preconceived views. Modern reports of ritual sexual abuse, etc, were the result of a similar process and likewise bogus; suggestible souls were just telling therapists what they wanted to hear. The articles caused an uproar — you can read all about it in two books, The Memory Wars: Freud's Legacy in Dispute (1995) and Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend (1998).

Sexual abuse isn't the central issue, though. The anti-Freud argument boils down to this: Freudian practice is pseudoscience (quackery, if you will) because it fails an essential test of a true science — hat is, it does not produce propositions that, in principle, can be shown to be false. Here it seems to me that Crews and his allies are on unassailable ground. One finds in Freud's work only a charade of the scientific method. Having cooked up some arcane notion through introspection, he would proceed to "confirm" it in sessions with patients. A key procedure in analysis was (and remains) free association, in which the analysand says whatever pops into his head in response to a stimulus. On hearing about a patient's dream, for example, Freud would ignore the dream's manifest content and instead ask the patient to free-associate in order to recover its latent (i.e., real) import. From the blather that followed Freud would pluck a few key words or images that in his opinion revealed the dream's true meaning, which in turn would shed light on the roots of the patient's neurosis. The analysand might resist or deny the interpretation, but this merely showed the strength of his mechanisms of repression. Freud would bear down and eventually the analysand would cave. Bingo: confirmation of Freud's hunch (and by extension his theory). There's a bit more to the process than that, but on the whole Freud's critics have persuaded me that it's not much more. How can anyone prove such a conclusion wrong when the only proofs that it's right are a function of the therapist's insistence?

The detachment of Freudian theory from reality points out a larger and as yet unsolved scientific problem: How can we know anything about the life of the mind? Although it's easy to dismiss Oedipal complexes and so on as nonsense (many modern Freudians, it should be said, do exactly that), one doesn't want to deny the existence of unconscious mental processes. As the linguist Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the speed and effortlessness with which children acquire language is evidence of a mental faculty operating without conscious intervention. No doubt we'll learn more about such hidden mechanisms someday, but my guess is they won't bear much resemblance to the baroque structure envisioned by Freud.

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